This is a guest post by Vicky Oliver.

The holidays are approaching and you’ve noticed that your cubicle neighbor has a little box with a bow on it. It’s making you sweat. What if it’s for you? You didn’t get her anything! But what if it isn’t for you? Should you still get her something? How much should you spend?

Proper etiquette around gift giving at the office is a snake pit for most people. But if you follow a few simple guidelines, you’ll sail through the holidays without a single faux pas. Here they are:


Let “power hierarchies” guide your way.

Whether to give or not to give depends a lot on your position in the office “power hierarchy.” For example, people who work “under” you and routinely serve you at work–your assistant or the receptionist, for example–should get a small gift as a gesture of gratitude. Likewise, if you have a supervisor or boss, it’s customary to “go in” on a larger gift with several coworkers, to express thanks, loyalty, and solidarity.

Use your heart and be sensitive.

You don’t need to give gifts to all of your coworkers unless you work in an office of five or fewer people, where leaving one person out would hurt his or her feelings. However, if you have a team member or coworker who has been particularly helpful or supportive to you this year, a card expressing that and a small gift is entirely appropriate, even if you don’t do the same for others. Be tactful and discreet when singling out one special person for a thank-you gift.

Give to helpers and service people.

In addition to your immediate helpers in the office, be sure to acknowledge support staff in your office building, including the doorman, mailroom person, perhaps a frequent courier you know by name, the night or weekend cleaning person, and others who make your everyday 9-to-5 life easier and more pleasant. Always give cash in a pretty envelope accompanied by a heartfelt, written message of appreciation. These people often make minimum wage or close to it, and a $20 bill goes a lot farther than a pair of gloves.

Don’t overspend.

The rule of thumb for office gifts is that they be inexpensive. It’s poor etiquette to spend, say, $50 on a bottle of eau de toilette or a designer scarf for a coworker, because chances are she’ll buy you chocolates and then feel embarrassed. If you have a lot of gifts to give out, try to stay under $20 for each. Some ideas include: a gift card to Starbucks, monogrammed notecards, a cookbook, a bottle of wine, a gourmet food item, a gift certificate to a favorite lunch spot, a potted flower, or a two-drink voucher at the local watering hole.

Keep a few “anybody” gifts handy.

What if someone gets you a present and you didn’t get one for him or her? That won’t happen to you because you’ve already gone to the corner CVS or Duane Reade and stocked up on fistfuls of fashionable finds. A drop-dead eyeglass design might be copied and recopied until it shows up on the reader magnifier shelf of Duane Reade or a CVS. Comb the aisles of discounter chains before the holidays and then invest in some upscale wrapping paper. Watch these “generic” gifts transform into the world’s most glamorous (and inexpensive) presents. Your recipient won’t know that you didn’t shop ahead just for her or him.

Institute a “Secret Santa” policy at work.

If you’re concerned about whom to give to and how much it’s all going to cost, go to your friendly HR person and ask her if your company might consider instituting a Secret Santa policy–where everyone buys ONE person a gift. (You draw for who buys whom gifts.) This can save you a lot of money and is ordinarily considered to be even more fun too, as there is a “luck” element in whom you draw and a shared sense of camaraderie.

About the guest post author:
Vicky Oliver is the author of five bestselling books on personal branding, etiquette, and career development, including 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions and her latest, The Millionaire’s Handbook: How to Look and Act Like a Millionaire Even If You’re Not (Skyhorse, 2011). She’s a leading career adviser and image consultant in Manhattan.